LOUIS SPOHR: Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 20; Symphony No. 6 in G Major, Op. 116, “Historical”; Overture in C Minor, Op. 12 – NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover/ Howard Griffiths – CPO multichannel SACD, 777 179-2, 62:09 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
The Howard Griffiths/CPO cycle of Spohr symphonies is being rolled out at a more leisurely pace than the rival version from Howard Shelley on Hyperion. But, then, who would have thought a decade or so ago that Spohr would be receiving such royal treatment: two series that have so many virtues it’s hard to choose between them, at least so far. For Spohr aficionados, the choice is simple: collect both. For the rest of us, differences in pairings and CPO’s decision to record the works in very fine multichannel sound may be deciding factors. Howard Shelley’s recordings have tended to group the symphonies chronologically, while Griffiths has thrown such an ordering scheme to the wind, recording late symphonies along with early ones. So Shelley gives us Symphonies 1 and 2 on a single disc (Hyperion CDA67616), which makes a certain amount of sense, while Griffiths backs the Symphony No. 1 (1811) with Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 (1839). I find the contrast appealing and a good reason to favor Griffiths (though I’ll also make a pitch here for Howard Shelley’s pairing of Symphonies 4 and 5, Spohr’s finest.)
The Symphony No. 1 is endearing on a couple of scores. First, it is obviously the work of a young man out to prove something. It was commissioned by one Georg Friedrich Bischoff, who was so impressed with Spohr’s music directorship of the first music festival he arranged in the town of Frankenhausen that he asked Spohr not only to lead the second festival but to supply a symphony for the occasion. Spohr responded “with great enthusiasm” and with a symphony whose character shows it. Not only is the piece well crafted and well proportioned, it immediately announces a very individual symphonic style, especially if you consider that Beethoven was well on the way to fixing the dominant symphonic style of the age, having completed his first six symphonies by this time. In fact, as Bert Hagels suggests in his notes to the recording, Spohr’s First Symphony could almost be considered an anti-Beethoven symphony: its gentle overall character, especially its genial last movement, a surprising Allegretto rather than the de rigueur Allegro, set it apart instantly. No bold dynamic and harmonic contrasts, no tub-thumping final apotheosis: instead, long-breathed melodies that unfold with a serene logic.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 seems to be the model for Spohr’s symphony; this is obvious in the stately introduction—which even has the same coloration in the brass and woodwinds, especially the clarinets—and in the unusual 3/4 time of the following Allegro. However, Beethoven had spoken: Spohr shares Beethoven’s motive-driven developmental style, hammering away throughout the first movement at a three-note motive in dotted rhythm taken from the first theme. Of course, Spohr’s third movement had to be a scherzo, but this again is a kinder, gentler scherzo than the typical Beethoven brand; it almost has the feel of a ländler or some other such folk dance. (Oddly, Spohr’s trio is more fevered than his scherzo.) The lilting finale seems to flow naturally from the scherzo.
Not so endearing is Spohr’s Sixth Symphony of twenty-eight years later. In fact, it shows a composer whose career is in serious decline. I like to say that Spohr started his symphonic career at the top and worked his way to the bottom, which is perhaps only a little bit unfair. In any event, the Sixth Symphony is a very rickety design based on an interesting idea. Subtitled the Historical Symphony, it’s supposed to reflect the styles of four different musical eras: the Baroque, the Classical, the Age of Beethoven, and the modern era: meaning 1840. For the Baroque-influenced first movement, Spohr introduces a Bachian fugue surrounding a Handel-inspired pastorale. The second movement is mostly Mozart with shades of Haydn, while the third movement scherzo has the unrestrained energy of Beethoven, including the rattling timpani from the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. The last movement, with dramatic flourishes and crashing cymbals, is designed to recall an opera overture of the period—Bert Hagels identifies Auber’s overture to La Muette de Portici as the direct model.
As might be expected, Spohr got into immediate hot water with the critics. They pointed out that if he was trying to beat the masters at their own game in his first three movements, he failed miserably. And what about the last movement? Is it parody or is it homage? I must confess I’m not sure about Spohr’s intentions for the last movement (which is not strong enough to be either good parody or imitation), but clearly he meant the other movements as homages to which he would bring his own brand of lyrical early-Romanticism. Unfortunately, the whole symphony emerges as pale imitation at best, and the early-Romantic gloss doesn’t help to elevate it for me. It’s a pretty symphony if heard once or twice—though that last movement will always jar—but it doesn’t hold up to or warrant repeated listening, even in as sympathetic a performance as Griffiths brings to the work. So it’s refreshing to hear the concert overture that follows: Spohr’s first purely orchestral (non-concertante) composition and one that has all the drive and drama an opera-composer-to-be could bring to it. (Spohr’s Jessonda was one of the most popular operas of its day.)
Having already done good offices for Spohr’s contemporaries Luigi Cherubini, J. W. Wilms, and Ferdinand Ries, Howard Griffiths is clearly the man for this assignment. He understands and responds with respect for the aesthetic of the era. These are finely-turned performances, with excellent playing from an orchestra that has distinguished itself in music of the post-Beethoven era. Plus CPO’s recording leaves little to be desired in terms of SACD realism and transparency. I can’t wait to hear what Griffiths and his team do for Spohr’s symphonic masterpiece, the Symphony No. 5.
Chico Hamilton and Little Feat join forces on this impressive 2023 Record Store Day Black Friday release.